History of Yiddish Cinema to Air on Wnet Thirteen Sept. 18
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History of Yiddish Cinema to Air on Wnet Thirteen Sept. 18

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For the one-and-a-half million Jewish refugees who fled Eastern Europe for New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, emigration nurtured both dreams of success and nostalgia for the Old World. Out of the immigrant society’s struggle to assimilate — and the hardships endured — was spawned a cinematic phenomenon, the Yiddish cinema.

Almonds and Raisins, which will air on WNET Thirteen Wednesday, September 18 at 9 p.m., is a history of the Yiddish cinema seen through the eyes of participating actors, actresses, directors and producers, and featuring archival excerpts from the more than 300 Yiddish films made from 1927-40.

Narrated by Orson Welles, the premiere presentation chronicles the sentiments captured and reflected by the Yiddish cinema, and begins with a film response to the 1927 classic, “The Jazz Singer.” That film, in which singer Al Jolson achieves his “American dream” by marrying a Gentile, prompted director Joseph Green to make “The Cantor’s Son,” in whose final scene the hero sings an emotional farewell to America as he departs for the warmer, truer values of his native shtetl.

The conflict of the Jewish immigrants between assimilation and preservation of their heritage is manifested through films such as Sholem Asch’s “Uncle Moses,” marked by the pain of factory strikes and poverty, and the joys of courtship and prosperity. and “Where is My Child?” and “The Ballad of Motl, the Sewing Machine Operator,” both starring legendary Yiddish actress Celia Adler.

in films shot on location in Poland, the music and humor acquire a more serious, religious tone. “Yiddle Mitn Fiddle” stars Molly Picon, who, with her father, holds starvation at bay as they wander from shtetl to shtetl, singing and playing Yiddish folksongs for the poor but pious villagers. “Mamele” depicts the hunger and poverty of the old country. In “The Dybbuk,” the sway of superstition is recalled, and in “Fishke der Krummer” the fusion of everyday life, and the religious rituals of holy days, feast days, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs is faithfully recorded.

Toward the end of the 1930’s, films such as Edgar Ulmer’s “Green Fields” returned to the theme of emigration, but implied an alternative to urban enclaves with an ambitious message that for the Jews in American ghettos, the renewal of faith and identity might be achieved by a return to the rural life and agricultural work. And in the 1939 “Tevye,” the doctrine of Zionism and the lure of Israel held out hope to American Jews, while alerting them to the millions of Jews stranded behind in Europe.

The presentation of Almonds and Raisins is made possible by a grant from Automatic Data Processing, Inc. Almonds and Raisins is written and produced by David Elstein and Russ Karel.

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